Michigan High School Programs Seek to Feed Students in Body and Mind

For the past two years, Michigan State University Extension and the Eaton Good Food Council have been working with Eaton Rapids Food Service Director Linda Vainner and high school teachers Jennifer Grivens and Julie Brantley.

January 2, 2014

Herb towers at Olivet High School. Photo Courtesy of Michelle Lavra.

By Becky Henne, MSU Extension

For the past two years, Michigan State University Extension and the Eaton Good Food Council have been working with Eaton Rapids Food Service Director Linda Vainner and high school teachers Jennifer Grivens and Julie Brantley.  The culmination of the work has resulted in a budding high school initiative providing life-long skills to high school students while offering fresh, highly nutritious produce during school meals. 

During summer break 2013, funding was secured to purchase four aeroponic tower gardens and assemble two raised bed gardens at the Eaton Rapids High School.  The gardens will be used in the school’s Farm to Table initiative to grow a variety of fresh herbs, greens, and tomatoes that will be sold to food service director Vainner for inclusion in school meals.  One of the larger single donations was generously provided by the Eaton Farm Bureau Co-op.

“Students in the botany and global science classes will be growing food for the school and learning essential science skills at the same time,” states Grivens. Initially the plans are to grow produce for school meals and in time potentially sell to school staff and the Eaton Rapids Medical Center Farmers Market. 

This project was modeled after a similar initiative that was started in November, 2012 at Olivet High School. There, Olivet Agriscience and FFA member Dalton Humphrey, has grown a variety of herbs and greens and then sold them to food service director Karla Love for their school meals.  Humphrey started the project because of his interest in food systems, growing food for his peers and his 4-H grant award.  Love is very engaged in offering seasonally fresh produce in the cafeteria and strives to make several school food purchases from farms around Olivet.

Charlotte High School Agriscience department and FFA program has been growing food hydroponically for the past 3 years for use in the school’s cafeteria.  Hydroponically grown food is grown in a controlled environment and in a nutrient rich solution instead of soil.  Without the need for soil, hydroponic food production can be accomplished indoors virtually year round.

The agriscience department is currently producing and selling around two pounds of salad greens per week to the lunch program.  Agriscience teacher Nick Thompson shares, “Hands-on learning is the best way for students to understand any concept.  It brings relevance to what they are learning about, and the students are engaged and excited about what we are growing.  Many of them try new vegetables and start gardens at home because of it.” 

The income from the sale of the school grown produce goes back into the program to continue these efforts. The salad greens and tomatoes have been the most popular item to grow and the two crops that students have had the best success in growing. Thompson explained that, “one of the biggest challenges the agriscience department faces is having a consistent quantity and quality.  Students are learning while doing, and they make mistakes, so sometimes those mistakes can affect production.”  He goes on to share his recommendation for other school programs interested in working on a farm to school initiative, “Get to know your food service director and see if they have a need. Start growing and get the kinks worked out.  We have made a lot of mistakes and have learned from them. If your program can fill a need, you have a lot better chance of establishing a farm to school relationship.  Our school director is very receptive which makes the process much easier.  It's a win-win.”

Teachers and food service directors from Eaton Rapids, Charlotte and Olivet school districts have been actively engaged in the Eaton Good Food Council (EGFC) that is co-led by Michigan State University Extension staff.  This group is seeking to improve access to nutritious foods for Eaton County and Eaton Rapids families respectively.  For more information about the Eaton Good Food Council, contact Michigan State University Extension Educator Becky Henne at henner@msu.edu or (517)-543-4468

To contact a Michigan State University Extension expert in your area, visit http://expert.msue.msu.edu/, or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3464).

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